By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 24, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Jovanka Novakovic

If you're a romance reader, even if you've never read one of Courtney Milan's books, chances are you've heard of her.

Milan was at the center of the implosion of the Romance Writers of America this past winter. A longtime board member, she had spent years trying to push RWA to take a stronger stance against racism and work harder to promote equity and inclusion within its ranks. Instead, in December, RWA informed Milan of sanctions against her as the result of a formal ethics complaint, suspending her membership and banning her for life from a leadership position.

It sparked a firestorm and public outcry, leading to questions of RWA's transparency and reports of the organization's repeated failure at inclusion and equity. The decision was reversed and Milan was extended an offer to return (she declined), but the incident publicly exposed rampant issues at the core of RWA, which is still working to rebuild.

For her part, Milan's tried to put it behind her (though she still fights fiercely against racism in romance on her Twitter feed) and is instead focusing on new work with renewed vigor. Her first full-length title since 2018, The Duke Who Didn't, hits shelves Sept. 22, and EW is exclusively revealing the cover, shot by Jenn LeBlanc at Studio Smexy, below.

Set in 1891, The Duke Who Didn't follows Miss Chloe Fong, a young woman with extensive plans for her life and absolutely no room for nonsense. So much so that, three years ago, she told her childhood sweetheart he could only talk to her once he planned on being serious. He disappeared that night. When Jeremy Wentworth, who is secretly the Duke of Lansing, returns to her tiny village, he hopes to woo Chloe, despite the fact that being serious is decidedly incompatible with his personality. But first, he has to convince Chloe to accept a mischievous trickster in her life — and also disclose to her the truth about his name, his title, and the small detail that he owns her entire village.

We called up Milan to discuss where the idea for this story came from, how it gave her a new window into her family history, why she's not writing "dark" moments, and the impact the entire RWA conflict had on her writing. Read the interview below the cover.

courtesy Courtney Milan

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the idea for The Duke Who Didn’t come from?

COURTNEY MILAN: This book has been percolating since about 2013 or 2014, when I saw a documentary about a town in England called Ashbourne, which has a yearly festival in which they play a game that they call football. Although it's nothing like anything we call football today. People come from far away to participate in this game. People of all stations in life showed up, and I just loved the idea of this small town that is temporarily, for a few days, large with people coming in. That's where it first started.

I understand your grandmother inspired it in part. Can you elaborate more on how family history shaped the storytelling?

Once I had this idea of a small town in England, one of the things that I have also had percolating in my brain is a small town that's racially diverse for reasons that would make sense at the time. My mother's family immigrated to the United States relatively early. I believe my great-grandfather first came over in the 1870s or 1880s. And my great-grandfather on the other side came over in the 1870s as well. I've always been interested in that early history of immigration and diaspora. This is a book that's set around the same time, when my ancestors were coming over from China into various parts of the West, and I wanted to think about what it would have been like for them and why they were leaving and what they were hoping to get.

In the case of a story like this, how much are you relying on personal family history versus other sources?

There's a substantial amount of personal history that comes into play. One of the things that I have always known is that my grandmother, my mom's mother, was just an extraordinary woman. She was actually born in Maui, but went back to China when she was 3 years old with her mother and lived there until she was 14. She went back to Hawaii at the age of 14, got a high school diploma, and then went and got a college degree from the University of Hawaii. That's not something you hear about women doing often in the 1920s, let alone someone who had grown up in a country where she didn't speak the language, didn't even use a Roman alphabet. All of those things would have been new to her. That's who I see as the example of someone I've met from China, and when you contrast that with the messages you sometimes get about women from China, the two are so distinct. They don't overlap. This is someone who is determined and ambitious and intelligent and not taking no for an answer. And then you have what other people tell you she should have been like.

Do you feel like this book took longer to percolate than others?

I have some books that percolate a really long time. I think the length of time gets longer the further I get out in my career, because I can't write as fast as I get ideas. This took a little longer than average. But that's just a function of having had more ideas that have been sitting around. The first idea I had was just having this village, and then all the other stuff gradually filtered in. The point where it really shifted into high gear was when I said, I want my heroine to be Hakka, which is the ethnic minority my grandmother is. I feel like my ideas are kind of like black holes. They start off small and then they start gathering more and more ideas to them, and eventually, it passes the event horizon and it's like, okay, now this is a book.

On Twitter recently, you were discussing the struggles you have with the dark moment in the final third of romance novels. Is there one here and can you talk about why or why not?

I don't have one in this. The thing that happens that would normally be the climactic moment of the book is not a dark moment. The reason you want a dark moment in fiction in the first place is the payoff of having everyone go through the darkness and getting to the other side and being like everything's gonna be alright. I wanted to see if I could structure it in such a way that you could get the payoff without the darkness.

Was that just a technical challenge for you, or what prompted it?

As a writer, the first four or five books, you just accept it. This is the way it's done: You have to have this dark moment and then you have to resolve it. At some point, you're like, "I'm just doing this because people have told me I have to. Why do I have to?" I felt like the thing I was being pushed to do didn't work. Sometimes it works, but also, I had these characters and I worked so hard to have them build up this rapport and work with each other and I felt like forcing them into this dark moment where all seemed lost was counterintuitive to their characters. It felt like it was undercutting the work that we've done to make them a good team. In reality, everyone has moments where you say things you don't mean and you have this big argument and you're not talking for 15 minutes and you eat an apple and you're like, "Well, that was dumb. I had low blood sugar." But in fiction, the conflict can't be I had low blood sugar and I said something really stupid because I was hungry, even though that's like 98 percent of my arguments with my husband. In fiction, it has to feel like it's real. And then it has to be resolvable. So there's this weird tension that arises. And there are some books where there is actually a very functional realistic black moment that you need to have the characters work through. But there are other times when I don't think that's there. So I started thinking about what you could write to instead of writing toward this black moment. If there was somehow a way that you could write to something that was the exact opposite of a bleak moment.

This is your first book being released in the wake of your being at the center of the RWA maelstrom. First off, how did that experience impact your writing? I can imagine it was exhausting and took time and energy away from your work.

I had to learn to be able to write again. Everyone else's perception of the RWA matter is that it started in December. From my perspective, it started much, much earlier. I had been dealing with people from RWA complaining about me saying things for years. And it didn't really matter how nicely I tried to say it, someone would complain about the fact that I was saying it. It always turned into something. One of the reasons I stopped caring about how I said things is that I spent so long caring and I realized it makes zero difference. Somebody's gonna email and say, "Courtney should not be saying this. Please make her stop." The thing that was most damaging about this, for me, is that it felt like I had to give other people permanent residence in my head. Every time I spoke or wrote something on Twitter, I had to think, "But is this gonna make racist people mad at me?" It turns out that it's very difficult emotionally to compartmentalize. I would sit down to write a book, and I would just feel like I had all these people in my head, criticizing every word and saying, "Oh, you shouldn't say this and oh, you shouldn't say that." If you look at my output for the last handful of years, you can see that in play. It has been two-and-a-half years since I released a full-length book. Before I joined the RWA board, I was doing one about every six months. I had to take a step back and say, "These people don't deserve any space in my head and I cannot write this for anyone except myself. I am going to write exactly the book that gives me the most joy at this moment, and it is not for anyone other than myself and my own joy."

Did going through all of that impact this book or its story at all? Did you tweak anything in light of it?

No. The only time I really felt it is when I was doing research for this book about where my heroine's mother would have come from. I did not know a whole lot about what it meant to be Hakka growing up because my grandmother died when my mother was extremely young. I started doing some research and it was so illuminating to me in terms of discovering where my grandmother came from. I always thought her to be a full anomaly. But the Hakka people believed that Hakka women, in general, took on more male roles and were given a lot more responsibility. In 1850, there was a man who was Hakka who started, essentially, leading a rebellion. It was a massive civil war in China. But one of the tenets [of the rebel government] was that men and women were equal. I hadn't really known any of that cultural background. It's not that my grandmother wasn't an anomaly. She was an extraordinary, dedicated, ambitious, intelligent woman, but to see that there was room for anomalies and there have been so many of them and that they were accepted and lauded and not discouraged, it meant so much to me. When I was reading about this, it did give me just a tiny hint of vindication. When I wrote my response [to RWA], I said, "Talking about Chinese women this way is contrary to the lived experience of my family and the oral histories of my family." But being able to look at that and say, "Also it was complete s---." You can't say every woman in China was submissive and never considered anything else, when 10s of millions of people did.

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